DURHAM, N.C. — Dr. Yaba Blay, renowned activist, cultural critic, and producer, launches Professional Black Girl, an original video series created to celebrate everyday Black womanhood, and to smash racist and “respectable” expectations of how they should “behave.”
Seventeen Black women and girls ranging in age from 2- to 52-years-old were interviewed for the series. Each episode features a candid discussion with personalities such as Grammy Award-winning recording artist, Rapsody; Joan Morgan, author of the Hip-Hop feminist classic When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost; and 13-year-old world traveler Nahimana Machen, sharing what it means to be a “Professional Black Girl.”
“‘Professional Black Girl’ looks like Taraji P. Henson at the 2015 Emmys jumping up to hug Viola Davis. It looks like Mary J. Blige and Taraji and Kerry Washington in that Apple commercial. It looks like me rolling up to a room full of people in Berlin to speak with my bamboo earrings on,” explains Tarana Burke, a non-profit consultant and fashion blogger featured in the series.
Limited edition Professional Black Girl merchandise, created in partnership with Philadelphia Printworks, is available now onphiladelphiaprintworks.com. The first full episode, featuring Dr. Blay, will air September 9, 2016, with an episode airing each Friday onYouTube and yabablay.com until December 23, 2016.
“The terminology that is often used to describe and define Black girls—such as bad, grown, fast, ghetto, and ratchet—are non-affirming and are words that are intended to kill the joy and magic within all Black girls,” says Dr. Blay. “We are professional code-switchers, hair-flippers, hip-shakers, and go-getters. We hold Ph.Ds and listen to trap music; we twerk and we work. We hold it down while lifting each other up, and we don’t have to justify or explain our reason for being. This is us.”
Follow #ProfessionalBlackGirl across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to celebrate and affirm the everyday excellence of Black women and girls.
For more information, or to interview Dr. Yaba Blay, please contact Shakirah Gittens at 718-687-6231 or by email at info@DynamicNLyfe.com.
I remember when she started as an apothecary in Brooklyn on Atlantic Avenue. It was in the early 90s… She used heavy mason jars, essential oils of ylang ylang, bergamot, sandalwood with *actual* jasmine flowers — all made to order and combined to heal. Her potions and balms were an indulgence and were more than affordable considering the quality. I used her baths and oils to pamper my young babies and spoil myself whenever I could and could not afford it. (She was artisanal before artisanal was a “thing” and the originator of what Joan Morgan’s doing nowadays.)
Fast forward a decade and a half
==>> Department stores began carrying Carol’s Daughter after word caught on. Once time had passed I noticed a decline in more than just the packaging and now I can’t tell the difference between Tui Oil and Hot 6
Though to be perfectly fair, I’m not the same hand-dyed-gele-headwrap-wearing-radical-vegan these days, m’self… I’ve made more than my fair share of personal adjustments over the years trying to pay bills just like everybody else.
Who am I to criticize? And if I really think about it, it’s been Carol Daughter’s — whether it be her originally sourced ingredients or outsourcing to L’oreal — that has inspired me to get back into my kitchen with my butters, mixers, and essential oils to indulge the scents and sensuality of my personal beauty routine and grooming habits.
So I say, Play on playa! Go on with yo’ bad self, Sista Lisa and tua u. That last part means “thank you” in early 90’s Black Brooklyn speak. (And if you have to ask, you’ll never understand!)
Last week we lost another great one: Maya Angelou. Or, rather, Dr. Angelou, as she preferred to be called. When it came to addressing her by her honorific/title, nobody got a pass — not even Oprah.
Maya Angelou was awarded an honorary doctorate from Wake Forest University where she was Professor Emeritus and resided in Winston-Salem, North Carolina from her latter years up until her final passing. As a longtime North Carolinian, it seemed I was never more than one degree of separation from the artist-activist and attended several of her lectures and guest appearances over the years.As a public figure, Angelou was a towering presence — a descriptor that goes far beyond her once elegant frame. In her role as private citizen, apart form her public persona, I had a few occasions to partake of her charm and wit, though I also gleaned how Angelou could pose a rather intimidating — and at times downright disagreeable — presence.
It didn’t take much to note that Dr. Angelou would have no truck with any type of behavior she viewed as disrespectful or inappropriate. She had no problem whatsoever with instructing those around her in the correct manner by which they should conduct themselves in her company if they ever found themselves in the unfavorable position of not living up to her exceedingly high standards. Like all of us, she was a work in progress and maintained her strong ideals as something she expected herself and those around her to be continuously striving toward. Angelou was perfectly transparent regarding her own struggles to become a good Christian and decent human being.
The rhetorician in me is the part that will miss her most. As a scholar interested in the power of public address, it is her voice and the historical moment it represents that fascinates. Hearing the sonorous tones in her speech will always recall for me memories of the elderly church mothers I grew up listening to and imitating. The first row of churchgoing women took a special liking to me because of my ability to emulate their speaking when it was my turn to read the Sunday School card-class lessons, making me the happy recipient of whatever butterscotch or peppermint hard candies their patent-leather clutch handbags held. The way these white-gloved church mothers pronounced their words with such precision sharply contrasted with the staccato short-hand of my hip-hop contemporaries. Their earnestly delivered announcements of the weekly “sick and shut-in” list and hyper-proper recitations of Sunday scripture were uttered as if each syllable was deserving of its own special pew.
Maya Angelou’s high African American rhetoric, I believe, held audiences with rapt attention in a similar way. The expressivity of Angelou’s speech embodied sonic vestiges of late-Victorian epistolary inflections no longer found in most African American communities. The radical eloquence demonstrated by Maya Angelou’s speaking style effectively operated to appropriate the “master’s language” and audibly articulate black agency in order to subvert de jure segregation and race-based educational discrimination. Her manner of speaking was meant to celebrate the tenacity of African Americans’ collective will not to merely survive, but indeed thrive — and with a flair for the erudite, to boot. With Maya Angelou’s passing this covertly political style of black speech will be missed in mainstream American media. Regretfully, for many, a pithy soundbite and a Hallmark card aphorism is all that is left.
Though in my mind — as an African American mother, and a scholar of writing and rhetoric — Maya Angelou posed much too significant a figure for the occasion of her death to be marked with nothing more than a social media hashtag or image file of her glamorous, youthful heyday, accompanied by little else beyond one of her many well-turned phrases. Whereas she was most popularly known for her short poems, I don’t think a cut-paste of “Phenomenal Woman” will do her justice. As Angelou herself often noted, she was clever with words. The subject of her attention to craft was at times a topic of great debate among other African American poets. Whether this is fair to Angelou’s literary contributions, I cannot say. Although I have studied and thought about poetry slightly more than the average American reader, I don’t fancy myself an expert on what constitutes “serious poetry,” nor do I necessarily assume expertise about assessing one poem as “good” and another as “bad.”
As a casual reader of memoirs, however, I most value Angelou’s talent as a writer of the autobiographical form. Of course, her first autobiography is also her most celebrated work. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings powerfully conveys Angelou’s gift for personal narrative. Her socio-historical account of individual capacity for greatness and resilience in spite of childhood trauma is rightfully recognized as a well-crafted memoir. It is through this genre of her writing that Angelou’s prose emerges with a special resonance. She shows herself to be a foremost chronicler of the latter part of the Jim Crow era in her story of growing up in Arkansas. Her rich anecdotes beautifully capture the turbulent times that led toward her fulfilling her unique cultural niche, and prepared her for the space she would eventually find herself occupying in the singular role of vernacular dance performer, civil rights activist, political fundraiser, and occasional agent provacatuer.
Perhaps because of my own experience as an expat and having once been a young, single mother living in Accra, Ghana, All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes is by far my favorite of all her autobiographical works. In this book, she describes how she took on the role of personal host and special consort to the likes of James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, among many other literary, political, and diplomatic luminaries of the Black Power and African Independence movements — all too numerous to name in this short reflection. Through this richly textured account of Angelou’s decade of wanderlust against the backdrop of mid-twentieth century Africa’s global decolonization movements, All God’s Children proved to be an indispensable companion during my sojourn year following the 9-11 attacks leading up to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Angleou’s writing helped me better contextualize what I was encountering in the social and political turmoil I personally experienced while toggling between West African airports, local guesthouses, and gated estate communities. Fed up with stateside jingoism and hawkishness, reading Angelou’s prose provided me with meaning and gave context to the social and historical forces I saw in play. Her writing gave me the much needed explanatory power I sought for a better understanding of the cultural dynamics that I was seeing and experiencing first-hand: the coup d’etat in Ivory Coast, Liberian living conditions at UN refugee camps, and Ghana’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings, to name just a few of these life-changing events. Reading All God’s Children offers the perfect vantage point for understanding the ground that was laid by her generation of black woman cultural workers and gave me the strength to return home to North Carolina and assume my local share of the work required for bringing about a more expansive vision of global ethics as a black woman and as an American. Yes. This is what Angelou’s gift was to me, and to us all. She showed us how to strive to become better, more responsive Americans and citizens of the world.
GOOD GRIEF! I will NEVER stop being absolutely flabbergasted by the power of EYE SHADOW in the New South. In case you haven’t noticed (in SC), a woman who goes out without her mascara is about as bad as a woman who leaves home without her bloomers!
Because of the exaggerated gender-norming etiquette down here people will assume you’re lazy, no-count, and simply write you off if you dare attend some public spaces bare-faced. True story. It’s jacked up, but I know how it is. I try to resist this conservative politics by playing with these ethics of “pretty-southern-lady” conformity.
In order to experiment with this concept and as a demonstration of my civic duty, today I chose to vote in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary. I did so wearing full make-up face and dressed to the nines (like any *decent* Southern lady would, of course). I made an effort to dress stylishly, yet conservatively.
When I got inside there was less than a dozen other people. All white men (save one woman) and not a single person under 60 years old! The woman standing beside the door immediately greeted me with a huge smile and, for some reason, introduced herself to me as the wife of one of the men and that she was only there because of him. Seriously!! Of course, I responded with equal warmth, a huge smile, and nodded how I “completely understand” (whatever that was supposed to mean).
Now! anybody who knows me knows I *like* to play with make-up, clothes, and cute hair-do’s (so sue me!) — I wore my favorite wellies, Karen Millen cape, and carried my Kate Spade handbag. I decided to accessorize with a pair of bronze/silver tone Akwaba doll earrings, plus an assortment of colorful, big bangle bracelets. It was raining hard when I pulled up to the polls, so when I got out of my car I decided to use my scarf to cover my head — as though it was an hijab. Once I walked in the door, for dramatic effect, I slowly unwrapped my scarf to reveal PURE AFRICAN CORNROW HAIR TWIST SPLENDOR! LOL! You would’ve thought a talking Panda had just entered the polling place.
It was hilarious. Every single one of those old white folk went out of their way to show EXTREME cordiality. I promise you, each and every one of them individually welcomed and greeted me! The whole room became chatty and smiley. And I was glad to oblige their hospitality! So I entered the booth, voted for the “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” super PAC candidate, Herman Cain.
AND HERE’S THE KICKER: When I exited the booth, one of the greyest, biggest of all the white men actually stopped me, SHOOK MY HAND, HUGGED ME, leaned in, and stage whispered, “So, who’d you vote for?” Then he slyly added, “Only joking.” The place broke into raucous laughter and everyone applauded as I left the polls!
Where else in America does this happen? South Carolina: too small to be a country, too big to be an insane asylum! Now here’s the question, folks. Has the South changed? You tell me.
With all the technological breakthroughs in digital textile design, so much is available nowadays to fabric enthusiasts. Formal artistic training is optional, while creativity and imagination are key. And though the skills and expertise involved in textile design are usually relegated to the domestic sphere of “crafts,” I believe the special body of knowledge that is derived from this area of creative expression truly reflects our humanity in a very real and profound sense.
Of course, black people have been deeply connected to the material history of textiles in this country and were involved in every aspect of the industry from the cultivation and harvesting of the cotton fiber, to the innovation and manufacture of finished goods. Needless to say, American slavery and the triangular trade that generated it was a brutalizing and dehumanizing process and yet, somehow, African Americans understood that even the most mundane and routine design interventions were necessary to help counter the highly organized systems of power and exploitation they faced. Without question, through the refashioning of a fundamental notion of what it means to be a US citizen, African American influence in the textile technologies (along with their inestimable impact in the areas of music, storytelling, and metalwork) was critical. African enslaved persons deliberately and methodically invented and arranged ingenious networks of emancipatory codes and sign systems into their day-to-day rhetoric of American civic life even as they employed the very technologies that helped to enslave them.
Adam Banks points this out brilliantly when he writes about Ozella McDaniel Williams who, until her death in 1998, carried with her the knowledge of how to painstakingly place different color knots on quiltwork in order to direct freedom seekers out of slavery and towards a mnemonic path to freedom through the Underground Railroad. And even David Walker, who composed the seminal “Appeal, in Four Articles: Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America,”purposely designed the document at a size that could be easily concealed once sewn into the fashions Walker sold at his early 19th century clothing store. This way the idea of freedom and emancipation could spread without risking detection by those who would rather thwart liberty.
For all these reasons and more (namely, the fact that my sewing pastime has had me on the lookout for all sorts of cute new materials), I am so digging what Kweli Kitwana is doing with fabrics. Based on her keen awareness of African American history and cultural signifiers, she is designing fabric with some of the most unusual prints I’ve seen in a while. Scenes from the Middle Passage and the Civil Rights era (as well as some traditional West African motifs) are reinterpreted with fresh, contemporary colors — not the same old primaries and earth tones. Kitwana also has a very clever sense of irony in her designs. With her occasional selections of gothic slavery scenes juxtaposed against pastel backgrounds or arranged as flower petals, her fabric prints display a thematic gravitas that is hard to deny, despite their distinctively attractive character.
Much has been made of kawaii when it comes to the types of images imported globally alleged to fetishize Japanese and Asian women as nubile objects for the Western male gaze. Or worse — that kawaii spreads the idea that the whole of Asia is infantile and imitative, made up of insufficiently masculine men who can’t even handle their tiny little women, thus needing big, hairy white guys to model for them the proper way to effectively rule the world.
Luckily, this is overstating the issue, but I think the ideological implications exist somewhere in at least a few Western minds. Apparently, Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is not too concerned with perpetuating this unfortunate doxa and has appointed (from left to right) Misako Aoki, Yu Kimura and Shizuka Fujioka as official state emissaries to represent the coolness of Japanese pop culture in the worlds of fashion and anime.
Well, I think they’re friggin’ adorable and I don’t mind admitting that I would find international diplomacy a lot more interesting if it involved a bit more otaku. It might just heal the world.
MAC just stole my dissertation idea. ;p The cosmetics company’s latest spring line is all purpley-pink and pastel. The image to the left is a screenshot of the “Quite Cute” promotional campaign. Cute is so in right now. Alas, such is the risk of cuteness; sometimes being embarrassingly fashionable.
Karl Lagerfeld has nothing to do with MAC — he heads the house of Chanel. In my opinion, the man is absolutely hilarious! While watching a documentary about the man and his impact on the notoriously invidious fashion industry,Lagerfeld Confidential, I howled with laughter. If Roland Barthes had been into sewing instead of writing, he would’ve been Lagerfeld. (Punchline… punctum — what’s the diff?)
Also, Lagerfeld discovered Kimora Lee Simmons — who in turn founded the now defunct Baby-Phat clothing company. Weirdly, when Simmons was not much more than 13 years old, Lagerfeld plucked her from the suburbs of St. Louis Missouri, dressed her as a child-bride and paraded her across the world’s fashion runways. The man practically raised her. Currently, Simmons holds licensing rights to the Hello Kitty image for a jewelry line she designs. I think the quotes below explain exactly why, at least judging from her reality show, Simmons is so, um, very… eccentric. Here are some of Lagerfeld’s thoughts on fashion, beauty, children, and (of course) cuteness:
“If you want social justice, be a civil servant. Fashion is ephemeral, dangerous and unfair.”
“Life is not a beauty contest, some [ugly people] are great. What I hate is nasty, ugly people…the worst is ugly, short men. Women can be short, but for men it is impossible. It is something that they will not forgive in life…they are mean and they want to kill you.”
“[Children] grow so fast, and having adult children makes you look 100 years old. I don’t want that.”
“Sunglasses are like eyeshadow. They make everything look younger and prettier.”
“[Sunglasses are] my burka…I’m a little nearsighted, and people, when they’re nearsighted, they remove their glasses and then they look like cute little dogs who want to be adopted.”
Aside from the much publicized irony of Black History Month being celebrated in the shortest month of the year, I generally relate to certain other criticisms about these four weeks of commemorative celebration having become pretty much absurd at this point in contemporary popular culture.
I have sometimes held the opinion that sneakers are a sort of cute rhetoric that signifies on certain essentialist claims made about African American men. Of course I’m talking about the troping on the “run, nigger, run” metaphor from African American literature and folk-tales, which I suspect is informed — at least somewhat — by the 19th and 20th century historical references to youthful black male flight from Southern slavery and Jim Crow lynching.
Certainly, in the sports and entertainment media, young, athletic, African American male bodies are fetishized and made objects of white, middle class, heteronormative spectacle as in the case of baseball, football, and basketball. This emphasis on youthfully playing games is a “cute” rhetoric. Arguably, sneakers are the cutest menswear shoe style available and, for good or bad, remain a staple of hip-hop style and urban fashion.
And sadly, even up until now many young black men still view professional sports as the only legitimate avenue to wealth and fame, as the frames of black athleticism are narrowly interpreted as the optimal performance of African American masculinity. The popular sports legacy of Michael Jordan’s endorsement of Nike Air Jordans and his influence on urban fashions associated with the late 90s style of dress when grown black men dressed in over-sized jersey tank tops, low-hanging, ankle-skimming shorts, and yes — sneakers. Grown black men wearing play clothes. The issue of concern for me is that “black” must be modified by “grown” and I’m curious as to how this is related to the performance of gender.
Spike Lee as “Mars Blackmon” parodied this child-like mannishness in his first and highly acclaimed independent film, She’s Gotta Have It, and in his numerous Blackmon reprisals in several Nike ads back in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, there are blogs and chat-rooms populated by intelligent, educated, technologically savvy — literally well-heeled — black men who spend hours comparing their sneaker collections and discussing the intricacies of limited editions, latest trends, and architectural designs. Within these digital communities, rarely is the issue of exploited overseas sweatshop child labor ever raised. Personally, I don’t claim to understand what motivates sneaker enthusiasts. I guess I’m not much of a sports fan either. However, I do think the question is worth asking: is this a part of what Carter G. Woodson warned about in The Miseducation of the Negro?
When you google the search terms *african* *american* and *cute* (with no quotes, of course) the first hits you get are associated with hairstyles. After that there are some hits for baby names. This is a fascinating topic to me and I believe it begs a chapter in my dissertation. Among the biggest vlog topics on YouTube these days is that of one African American woman or another who has embarked on a “natural hair journey” or is otherwise describing some new miracle product that has finally knocked her kinky curls into place.
Hell, I’d be lying if I didn’t cop to picking up a few hair tips in my own quest for cuteness through watching YouTube.
Though I can’t help but notice that the YouTube natural hair community already has several of its own clichés like, “Hey Guys! It’s me and blah, blah, blah. My hair is blah, blah, blah. And it won’t ever blah, blah, blah no matter how much I try to blah, blah, blah. Bye Guys!” I even saw an upload titled “My 27 Piece Weave Journey”! (For those of you who are black girl hair challenged, a 27 piece is a short weave like the one NeNe from the Real Housewives of Atlanta wears.) For realers. Very comical.
For me, this issue makes me think of Terry Eagleton‘s book, Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, especially in the section where he highlights the late 60s – early 70s Black Power slogan, “Black is Beautiful” and discusses how this term is immanently rhetorical because of the way it calls attention to the falsity of Western beauty standards. Therefore, this verifiably questionable discursive utterance is deployed for the purpose of diametrically opposing and dislodging the Kantian assumption about the exclusivity of whiteness as ideal beauty.
Of course the period immediately following the civil rights movement, also known as the Black Power era, was the heyday of the afro and, for me, relates very closely to Benjamin’s notion of the hazy, blurry fluffiness of aura as an halo effect. But then the afro and the (black) people who used to wear them have mostly gone out of style. Now we are told that “gay is the new black.” Or “green (politics) is the new black” and recently, I even saw a t-shirt that read “broke is the new black.” (Hasn’t it always been?)
Cute is governed by the canons of style (and delivery — as in the case of product packaging). So the racial rhetoric of cuteness is thus problematized, as it constantly moves African Americans in and out of style. As it stands, an entire category of humanity occasionally becomes vogue and then passé… and then vogue and then passé and vogue and passé and so on.
In Film Form: Essays in Film Sense by Sergei Eisenstein blonde hair is implicated as the gold standard of photography and cinema culture, quite literally. The golden, yellow hair of the Hollywood starlet is a fundamental pathos of the halo lighting effect used to imply desirability and is employed in almost all Hollywood films. As far as film culture goes, what we have seen little of is afro as aura. Well at least not until this public plural space of YouTube where black women are illuminating their own identities in the digital sphere. Stay tuned.
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